Let’s start the fall term with a look at the interesting situation at the University of Windsor. The bargaining there is playing out like a labour law textbook example of how our collective bargaining and industrial conflict laws work.
The University and the Faculty union (WUFA) bargained but didn’t reach a deal. According to the laws of Ontario governing collective bargaining, as of July 2 the employer was in a position to lockout the workers or to unilaterally impose contract terms, as I explained in an earlier post.
An unusual twist in this case was the union’s decision to not take a strike vote long
before this date, as is the usual practice of unions. By not having a successful strike vote in its back pocket, the union was not in a legal strike position, since in Ontario a strike cannot be held without a vote having been taken. This left the union somewhat at the mercy of the employer temporarily, since the employer could impose its preferred terms and the workers could not respond with job action. I was critical of WUFA for not having taken the strike vote at the time, though in the end this did not harm the workers.
Sure enough, the employer announced on July 3rd that it would unilaterally impose a contract on the workers effective July 8. However, in a very strange move, the employer threatened to impose terms that had not actually been proposed to the union in negotiations. You can’t do that, as I explained in this post. To impose contract terms on workers that have never been negotiated with the union is a violation of the duty to bargain in good faith. Perhaps having realized that the July 3rd threat to impose contract terms was unlawful, the employer never carried through with it.
However, the employer regrouped–probably got some legal advise–and came back with a new threat to impose the final offer it had made to the union. That’s different. Since the offer had been put to the union in collective bargaining, and had been rejected, the employer was permitted to unilaterally impose it. It did so in August, and those imposed terms are still in place. That was not the end of the world for the employees in August, since they continued to be paid through August when fewer students were around. Had the workers been locked out, they would have lost their August income, and it would have made little sense for the union to strike in the dead of summer.
The Present Situation
But now things get interesting. In mid August, the union finally held its successful strike vote. Having done so, the union was in a position to lawfully respond to the employer’s actions. It now has a range of tools available to it to apply pressure on the university, as I noted in my earlier posts. The law gives workers the ability to respond to an employer who unilaterally imposes terms by engaging in a full out strike, or any number of lesser measures, such as rotating, sporadic, partial or full short strikes. The objective is to apply pressure on the employer to get it back to the bargaining table. This dispute is long from being over.
The union has announced a one day strike for Monday September 15. Thereafter, the plan is to use rotating, half day strikes with 2 hours notice. The notice is not a legal requirement. The university can respond to WUFA’s partial, strategic strikes by imposing a full lockout of the employees.
The one day strike will get everyone’s attention. A downside of that tact, at least from a PR and public sympathy standpoint, is that it will negatively effect some students who have classes on Mondays. The union needs to assess tactically how much impact their actions should have on students. The greater the effect on students the greater the pressure on the employer, but there is also risk that public and student opinion and anger will be directed at the professors if classes are cancelled due to strikes. Both sides are saying they don’t want students to be effected, so there will be a blame game at work here.
On the other hand, there are options that may not effect students as much. This would include boycotting administrative functions, committee meetings and other service to the university, but continuing to teach courses. That would be a lawful strike under our laws. Professors are largely responsible for running universities, in addition to teaching, so a withdrawal of administrative services will cause a big headache for the university. Yet, continuing to teach would dilute the pressure on the employer, since it would have less intense pressure from students and parents to resolve the dispute quickly.
For the same reason, continuing to teach classes might reduce the potential of the Liberal government intervening with back to work legislation. Recall that the Liberals intervened in the strike at York University back in 2009 when the prolonged work stoppage threatened student’s school year. Whether interest arbitration is considered a good or bad idea for the parties may influence their strategies from here on out.
Issues for Discussion
1. If you were running the faculty union, would you recommend strike action that cancels classes, or that maintains classes and focuses instead on administration and service?
2. What are the pros and cons, from the perspective of union strategy, in conducting a full out strike as opposed to smaller, rotating, short-term strikes?
3. If you were advising the employer, how would you recommend the university respond to these new rotating strikes? Would you consider imposing a full lockout? Why or why not?